I’d spent most of the day on the road, driving from Montreal to Toronto specifically for the midweek concert. At the time, I was working for a bookstore chain as a lowly management trainee, which among its many benefits was if management becked, I called. I had hired on with the company in Toronto and had only been working there for a few months when they asked me to do a stint in one of their Montreal stores, which was short-staffed and needed someone who could speak French. So me and my rusty French headed back down the road to Montreal for a six-week stretch, with the proviso that I simply had to have two days off to get back to Toronto to see Van on October 25. “Oui, oui, mademoiselle.”
It wasn’t working out all that great in the Montreal store. I’d been told they needed me primarily to clean up a backlog of office work and that unless I regularly conversed with files then I wouldn’t be doing much speaking, in any language. The French was for “just in case.” It turned out that every day was just in case. I never saw a file that needed filing the entire time I was there – instead I was out on the floor doing my “s’il vous plait, est-ce-que vous pouvez parler un petit peu plus lentement?” routine and driving the store manager nuts. She was a charming woman and bless her for not firing me, but two days off to head up to Toronto was definitely a good thing.
The drive to Toronto got me to my apartment late afternoon, just enough time to shower, put my dancing shoes on, and head downtown for the show. I’d been waiting years for this night. But first, a call into my boyfriend, to let him know I had made it in OK and let’s get together after the show, since I was heading back the next day. The telephone call from hell.
So there I was sitting in a stall in the ladies room at the O’Keefe Centre, crying my eyes out over a guy. The gist of his side of the telephone call was basically that he wanted an exclusive relationship…one that excluded me. I suppose he thought it was a good day to tell me, that my prevailing good mood over the upcoming show might lessen the blow, and if it didn’t, at least he knew where I’d be for a few hours and wouldn’t worry that I’d show up on his doorstep with assorted artillery.
He was right in his assumption, at least on the second part. Once I got to my seat up in the balcony, I was glued to it. I felt like a sponge – a puffy, red-eyed, blotchy-faced sponge, waiting to absorb whatever came my way.
I’ve not been much of a student of music, with my few years of piano lessons and my self-taught folk guitar playing doing more to prove the rule than the exception. Music is just like art for me. I will forever be the person in the art museum who, when asked why I like a given painting, will say, “I dunno, I just like it.”
“But why do you like it?”
“I dunno,” really wishing the person would go away.
“There must be something about it that particularly appeals to you.”
“I dunno,” very seriously wishing the person would go away.
“One thing, just tell me one thing you like about it.”
“OK, OK. I like the way the eyes seem to be staring right at me from the bottom of the stream.”
“What eyes? Those are tadpoles.”
It’s the same way with music. Don’t ask me why I like it. I’m not looking for a lesson in musical tadpoles. I wouldn’t know a diminished 7th from an augmented 6th if it was staring me in the face – I leave all that to the professionals. Just make sure the mike is on and the sound check went well, and that’s good enough for me. I’ll just sit back and relax and let it all soak in.
While waiting for Van and the band to come on stage, I spent more time sniffling and blowing my nose than I did wondering what to expect from down there on the stage. And just as well, really. I could assume that since the show was in support of the recently released Wavelength album, it would feature at least a smattering of those songs, but other than that, I had no idea what to expect, and why would I? Every album that Van had come out with was completely different from what had come before. That was about the only thing I could ever count on – it was always going to be something different. The only commonality I ever found among his albums was the voice; everything else was one diversion after another. There was country and blues, jazz and poetry, love and pop, and it always left me wondering what could possibly be next. He was not a man for pigeonholing. The reason I was sitting there wasn’t because of what he sang, it was because of how he sang. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough to know that I had no idea what tonight’s show was going to turn out to be. That is as true today as it was then.
What it turned out to be was an adrenalin rush. From the opening notes of “Moondance” to the final note of “Caravan” it felt like the metronome was set to 260 and never let up for a moment. Never one for idle chitchat between numbers, Van just kept pumping out one song after another, with no time for us to catch our breath anywhere along the way. Led by Bobby Tench on guitar and Peter van Hooke on drums, with Katie Kissoon and Annie Peacock on backup vocals, the band was rocking, blistering really. And through the course of it all I was getting to see for the first time what a vocal gymnast Van was. Out of his vocal bag of tricks on “Caravan” came a string of words, made up of syllables often comprising four or five notes, and between those notes there is silence, where the art of music is laid open, laid bare. Of course I wasn’t thinking any such thing at the time. The only thing I was thinking is that all I wanted to do was capture in a bottle whatever this was, hide it under my jacket and take it home with me, so I could unleash it anytime I wanted.
But that is the essence of live – you can’t take it with you. And therein lies the ephemeral beauty of music – it is always of the moment.